(Long Island, NY) On Monday, Jan. 10th, Mayor Bloomberg’s team of Commissioners gathered for a hearing to discuss the fiasco of the “Post-Christmas Blizzard.” The storm, one of the largest to ever hit the city, cost $38 million in expenditures, two deaths, and dozens of cancelled flights and train rides. Many were left stranded at stations, with their holiday-weekend plans interrupted. Over 150 ambulances were trapped, and it took a week before city sanitation workers regained their normal garbage routes.
In some parts of the city, the twenty inches of snow was left unplowed for over three days. While the mayor was out-of-town, no one with authority decided to declare a state of emergency. A large part of this hearing was devoted to uncovering who’s to blame for this blatant lack of action.
At the Jan. 10th hearing, more than fifty NYC City Council members questioned Bloomberg’s co. from 11am to 3:40pm. Those in the hot seat included: Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Bruno, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, and Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty. The Department of Transportation commissioner Janette Sadek-Khan was also questioned for the decision not to call a state of emergency despite intense winds and snowfall accumulating two to three inches per hour. During this meeting, a back-and-forth shift in blame was placed from Bloomberg’s team to city sanitation workers.
Originally, Bloomberg blamed the disaster on the unusual speed of the snowfall. Had Bloomberg declared a state of emergency, cars would have been ordered to be removed from the streets to expedite plowing. Bloomberg claims to have suggested car removal prior to the storm, but the amount of cars still left on the streets made plowing nearly impossible.
Such a lapse in policy has made many New Yorkers compare the mismanagement of the blizzard to that of Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. It’s suggested that the recent budget cuts played an important role in the lack of service by giving workers less incentive to act immediately. Reports surfaced that over 800 workers called in sick during the ordeal. The deputy mayor insisted that budget cuts did not delay the emergency response.
Communication was clearly the biggest issue of the disaster. Though Bloomberg’s commissioners once again blamed the snow, saying it came earlier than anticipated, they admitted that people on the streets had better information. The consensus among commissioners is that they should have acted quicker, and hired private contractors and locals when city workers weren’t enough.
With the mayor and deputy mayor out-of-town for the holiday, Public Safety Chair, Peter Vallone Jr. demanded to know why the command center wasn’t opened immediately to gather information about the storm. After being questioned about the no-call in regards to a state of emergency, the deputy mayor repeatedly explained that it wasn’t possible to determine who didn’t since there wasn’t an order. A state of emergency may have asked people to keep out of work on Monday, Dec. 27th to keep less clutter on the unplowed streets.
Another issue raised in the Jan.10th meeting concerned the disparity between the cleanup in Manhattan and the outer boroughs. City Council members claimed that bike lanes in Manhattan were cleaned before streets in south Brooklyn and southeastern Queens. Brooklyn, which has twice as many residents as Manhattan, was said to be the scene of dozens of abandoned plows because of the lack of staff.
One city council member dubbed southeast Queens “The Lower 9th Ward of NYC.” This area was hit the hardest and was the most neglected along with south Brooklyn. Sanitation Commissioner Doherty claimed that it was easier to clean the streets in Manhattan because there was less snow to plow. Nonetheless, City Council members called the investigation of the sanitation department and the demotion of sanitation officials a scapegoat for the negligence of the mayor’s commissioners.
An issue was raised concerning the sanitation vehicles which were changed to Toyota Prius in an effort to go green. These cars weren’t large enough to navigate the roads and got stuck as snow accumulated on the streets. Reports said that workers were sent to assist on specific tasks, rather than taking assignments closer to their homes. Workers were paid $12/hour for snow labor during twelve-fourteen hour days for weeks. The 15,000 bus tops and 100,000 crosswalks in Manhattan were given first priority in plowing.
The biggest inconsistency from Bloomberg’s commissioners concerned the “lack of information” they were said to have received about the magnitude of the storm. They claimed to receive information about the state of the ground, enough to halt the distribution of salt because it was deemed ineffective. Yet, if the information had been readily received in the case of the salt, it would have been possible to quickly establish a state of emergency. As one city council member points out, the “we didn’t know” excuse doesn’t pan out when all it takes is a log onto Facebook. Though the Jan. 10th meeting was private, the public can speak at the hearings being held throughout the city from Jan 18th-24th.
In response to the fiasco, the mayor’s commissioners created a fifteen-point list of solutions. Some of these include requiring ambulance workers to live within city limits, equipping sanitation trucks with GPS devices, training workers on two-way communications, and providing live monitors on the streets for quicker updates. The mayor’s commissioners proposed hiring personnel to run communications, but as city council members pointed out, this seemed unnecessary and would only create another barrier of red tape to prevent a quicker emergency response.